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Startups, stop treating engineers like a different species

Sep 12, 2022

Today I’d like to rant talk about how non-engineering people at startups – especially execs – treat engineers like a fundamentally different type of human being. A whole new species, with a different set of personal motivations, goals, frustrations, and passions to the rest of the company.

Why does this bizarre behavior occur? I think it's because non-engineers don't speak the language of technical work. Conversely, everyone at a startup has an opinion on recruitment and brand marketing because they're easily understood by non-domain experts, but that’s a whole different rant...

Non-engineers have built up years of pre-baked assumptions about how engineers work and what they are like that don’t really stand up to scrutiny. These are some of the most commonly-repeated myths I’ve heard. I’ve focused on startup culture because that’s what I know, but I imagine some of this stuff is relevant to larger companies too.

Charles is the VP Ops & Marketing at PostHog. As a tedious non-engineering executive type (boo), he has hired and managed several teams across multiple startups, both technical and non-technical. In previous lives he has had titles with words like ‘Director of Product’, ‘CTO’, and ‘Head of Special Projects’, whatever that means. Outside of PostHog, he is currently spending a disproportionate amount of time perfecting his homemade tiramisu recipe - it’s getting there.

Myth #1: Engineers are worse communicators than non-engineers

This is my most-heard and least favorite. I’ve worked with loads of non-engineers who were awful communicators, and plenty of engineers who were stellar communicators. If you’re not able to articulate why you are doing what you are doing in any role at a startup to people outside your direct team, I’ve found it’s reasonable to assume that you aren’t actually that good at your job.

Why this matters: When it comes to hiring especially, I think recruiters can give engineers a free pass on communication skills because their ‘on paper’ technical skills look impressive. Your team will not thank you for this later on. The best engineers I’ve worked with were also able to articulate to a non-engineer why what they are working on matters - and vice versa.

Myth #2: Engineers are motivated by different goals

Having conducted about ~800 job interviews, it turns out people by and large tend to say the same 3 things:

  • Autonomy – freedom to make decisions and not be micromanaged
  • Purpose – working for a company or team I care about
  • Growth – feeling like I’m learning and developing

This whole simplistic ‘commercial people only want money and titles, engineers are happy building delightful products in a dungeon’ doesn’t stack up.

Why this matters: It causes startups to underinvest in their engineers’ development (this is more prevalent in those that see engineering as a cost vs. profit center). There’s a reason even FAANG MAMAA companies struggle with engineer retention, and it’s not just about $$$.

Myth #3: Engineers hate meetings

This should be reframed as ‘everyone thinks they hate meetings because 90% of the ones they attend are a waste of time’. Do you really think the junior sales rep sitting on a Zoom call with 30 other people giving status updates is excited to be there?

Meetings are a really important tool, especially for managers (which is why they love them), but just like any tool they can be ineffectively used.

Why this matters: It lets startups get away with packing their weeks with ineffective meetings for non-engineers. At PostHog at least, being mildly zealous about meeting-free Tuesdays and Thursdays means a) minimal low value meetings, and b) better communication because you’re forced to write stuff down properly.

Myth #4: Engineers are allergic to process

Ah yes, non-engineers love writing policies and documentation, while engineers just want to YOLO merge in peace. Please.

And no, calling your corporate policies ‘runbooks’ doesn’t make them any more palatable.

The reality is, every role has people who are process-driven and those who aren’t (wow, we’re really laboring the same point here, aren’t we…).

Why this matters: It leads to lazy process-making overall at a company. Instead of creating thoughtful processes that improve the lives of your team, you end up copying and pasting something you found online, announcing it at all hands, and then accepting that engineers won’t follow it because ‘they’re engineers’.

Enough ranting... what should you do about it?

As a non-engineer, my one simple trick™ is to treat engineers as cultural canaries in the coal mine.

Every time you hear someone saying ‘engineers don’t like X’ or ‘the engineering team have complained about Y’, use that as an opportunity to think about how this applies to your whole organization. Nine times out of 10, I’ll bet you find that you’re looking at a broader team culture issue, not an engineering one.

If you want to go further, I recommend checking out:

  • The Pragmatic Engineer - Gergely is the gold standard in high quality writing about engineering culture
  • Lenny's Newsletter - yes I know Lenny is product-focused, but he covers a lot of the same culture ground
  • Technically - Justin explains technical concepts really well, which can help you demystify engineering culture a lil' bit